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Millennium Post

Magnificent Seven

BELGIUM
Participation: 1930, 1934, 1938, 1954, 1970, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998
and 2002.
Key players: Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Vincent Kompany (Man City)
History: After a brief halcyon era in the 1980s, when a Belgian golden generation placed fourth at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, a period of respectability followed in the 1990s. After being denied a perfectly good Marc Wilmots goal in the round of 16 against Brazil at the 2002 World Cup, eventually inducing their 2-0 loss, they never made it back onto the world stage.
How they got here: After several frustrated campaigns, this band of prodigies put it all together and went undefeated in qualifying, winning all five of their games on the road. In 10 games, they conceded just four goals in a tough group that also included Croatia and Serbia.
Expected finish: No other country can boast anywhere near as much young talent as Belgium does, in spite of only being the size of Maryland and counting just 11 million citizens – Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaine, Romelu Lukaku, Christian Benteke and Kevin De Bruyne, among others. In spite of their age, they are already an outsider for the title, boasting more than enough talent in every line to match up with just about anybody the World Cup can throw at them. But they are also internationally inexperienced, meaning a quarterfinal showing would be a fine result.

GERMANY
Participation: 1934, 1938, 1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010.
Key players: Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller (both Bayern Munich), Mesut Ozil (Arsenal)
History: The Germans, or, once upon a time, the West Germans, have won three World Cups, which only two other countries have done. They’ve reached seven World Cup finals, which only one other country has done. And they’ve made it into the semifinal 12 times, which no other country has done. So Germany is good at World Cupping.
How they got here: Predictably, Die Mannschaft ran like clockwork during qualifying, scoring 36 goals, the most in the final phases world-wide. Germany, after all, has never failed to qualify for a World Cup. They easily won nine of ten games in a fairly demanding group, which also included solid opponents like Sweden, Ireland and Austria. The only glitch came in the fourth game of their qualifying campaign, on Oct. 16, 2012, when they allowed the Swedes to come back from a four-goal deficit in the final half hour of the game to tie it 4-4.
Expected finish: A swashbuckling band of technicians plays exciting soccer and are entering their prime. In Mesut Ozil, Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller, Mario Gotze and oh so many others, Germany has the midfield depth to match anybody’s. And yes, that includes Spain. Consequently, anything less than a spot in the final will be a disappointment. Don’t be surprised if Germany lifts its fourth World Cup.

ITALY
Participation: 1934, 1938, 1950, 1954, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010.
Key players: Andrea Pirlo (Juventus), Mario Balotelli (AC Milan)
History: Italy is one of the giants of this tournament, having won it four times, most recently in 2006, bested only by Brazil. They lifted the trophy the first two editions of it that they entered and have reached the semifinal six times in the last 11 World Cups. But that isn’t to say that Italy’s success is predictable. In two of the last three seasons, they didn’t even make the quarterfinal, going out in the round of 16 in 2002 and the group stage in 2010.
How they got here: Since the other contenders in Group B, Denmark, Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Armenia, pretty much cancelled each other out by splitting their head-to-head games fairly evenly, Italy could simply rise above the fray and qualify on autopilot, going undefeated with six wins and four ties.
Expected finish: After flaming out spectacularly in 2010, Italy decided it was finally time to rebuild and stop relying so heavily on the generation that won in 2006. With exciting young forwards Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy stepping into bigger roles and a strong supporting cast emerging, the return was immediate. Italy reached the final of Euro 2012, losing to Spain, and fell to the same team on penalties in the semifinal of the 2013 Confederations Cup. This team is on the ascent but not quite there yet. A quarterfinals exit is most probable.

THE NETHERLANDS
Participation: 1934, 1938, 1974, 1978, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2006 and 2010.
Key players: Robin van Persie (Manchester United), Arjen Robben (Bayern Munich)
History: The Dutch are said to be the best team to never have won the World Cup. Three lost finals suggest as much. They lost to home countries West Germany in 1974 and Argentina in 1978, reportedly beset by a skinny-dipping scandal and intimidation from the new Videla regime, respectively, but revolutionised soccer with their high-movement and quick positional interchanging Total Football nonetheless
How they got here: Since re-taking the reins, Louis van Gaal, who had infamously overseen the failed Dutch qualification for the 2002 World Cup, has instigated a youth movement and brought back the width and pressure of the Dutch school. To great effect, since Oranje was almost perfect in a fairly weak qualifying group, winning nine and drawing one of ten games with a goal difference of +29.
Expected finish: The Netherlands comes into this tournament as a bit of question mark. Certainly, the impression left in qualifying was unambiguous, but then this side may not yet be equipped to handle itself on the world stage. For this is a very young side, especially in the back, with just a few veterans like van Persie, Arjen Robben and either Rafael van der Vaart or Wesley Sneijder blended in. Expecting them to reach further than the quarterfinals or so this time around might be too much to ask.

BRAZIL
Participation: 1930, 1934, 1938, 1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010
Key players: Neymar (Barcelona), Thiago Silva (PSG)
History: Brazil is the only country to have played in every single World Cup and the only team to have won it five times. The Selecao reached three consecutive finals from 1994 through 2002, winning the first and last of those. But in the three editions since then, they have crashed out in the quarterfinals, an unimaginable misfortune to befall this besotted soccer nation.
How they got here: The host team qualified automatically
Expected finish: There is no ambiguity whatsoever about what is being demanded of the 11 lining up in the gold and green jerseys come June. The Brazilians expect Brazil to lift their sixth World Cup. Plain and simple. To make amends, in a sense, for 1950, when the only other World Cup on Brazilian soil was lost to Uruguay in the final, a national tragedy long in the memory.   The task at hand, however, is much less straightforward. The pressure will be crippling, even more so than in 1950. And, more alarmingly, the talent might not be there. Certainly, Brazil won the Confederations Cup. But this is no vintage Brazilian side. Neymar will surely dazzle up front. But the rest of the team is young overall, suspect in some spots in the back, somewhat uncohesive in midfield, and lacking a consistent goal-scoring threat in attack. A semifinal elimination to either Spain or Germany is the most likely outcome.

ARGENTINA
Participation: 1930, 1934, 1952, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010
Key players: Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Angelo Di Maria (Real Madrid)
History: Two-time winners and two-time losing finalists, Argentina is typically a lightning rod for controversy at the World Cup. The Videla regime may or may not have fixed the 1978 tournament on their home soil. Diego Maradona may or may not have been on drugs or performance enhancers when he led them to a second title in 1986. And those are just a few of the incidents and allegations that seem to forever surround this team. Since reaching three finals in four tournaments between 1978 and 1990, however, Argentina has failed to reach quarterfinals.
How they got here: Yes, the two-year CONMEBOL qualifying stage, consisting of a nine-team double-round robin, was devoid of the Brazilian hosts this year, but that doesn’t make Argentina’s finish at the top of the pile any less impressive. A 9-2-5 (W-D-L) record in South America’s daunting cauldrons with a region-best 35-15 scoring record is a great yield, given the tricky circumstances.
Expected Finish: Argentina probably fits into the second tier of favourites, one notch below Spain and Germany. Playing on their home continent will help. And no other country can boast the attacking weapons Argentina does, even without the ostracized Carlos Tevez. Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Angel di Maria form a fearsome fivesome of forwards.
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